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Climate and Climate Change in Early America  

Matthew Mulcahy

European colonization of eastern North America and the Caribbean occurred against the backdrop of the Little Ice Age (LIA), a period between roughly 1300 and 1850 ce that witnessed generally colder conditions than in earlier and later centuries. Alone or in combination, shorter growing seasons associated with colder temperatures and periods of intense drought influenced Indigenous societies prior to the arrival of Europeans, interactions and conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans, and the development of colonial societies across the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Farther south in the Caribbean region, climatic threats such as hurricanes and droughts created distinct challenges to colonists as they sought to establish large-scale plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Such threats forced Europeans to alter their expectations and perceptions of the climate in North America and the Caribbean. Following the principle that locations at the same latitude would have the same climate, Europeans had anticipated that places like Virginia would have a climate similar to Spain’s, but that was not the case. As they adjusted to new American climate realities, colonists remained confident they could change the climate for the better. Far from a threat, human-induced climate change seemed to many colonists a desirable goal, one that marked the degree to which they might improve and civilize the “wilderness” of the New World. However, colonists also became aware of some negative consequences associated with their activities.